The Hakatere/Ashburton River – reviving a lifeforce We investigate one of the world’s few, unique braided rivers, and uncover the stories of some of the people connected to this essential waterway, and those working to restore its ecosystems.

Have you tried to hold your breath as you cross the Hakatere/Ashburton River? It’s a challenge – the bridge is long, spanning the width of one of the world’s few braided rivers.

Look left and right as you cross, and it’s hard not to notice the incredible diversity of this river. Partly glacier fed, and flowing through intensively farmed alluvial plains, past the Ashburton township and on towards the scenic Hakatere/Ashburton River mouth, the river is as environmentally precious to the local community as it is vital to the economy it supports.

Land-use change in recent years has had an impact on the river and the lives it supports, and it is time for change. Today, improving and protecting the natural character and mauri, or lifeforce, of the Hakatere/Ashburton River is a key focus. The calls to protect the river for future generations have been heard, and Environment Canterbury is currently working alongside consent holders to review water permits to ensure that water is not taken from the river at times of low flow.

Knowing the Hakatere/Ashburton

To understand the challenges facing the Hakatere/Ashburton River, a sense of how extensively it is used is helpful.

The river is famous for its wide range of recreational opportunities such as sports fishing for salmon and trout, and whitebaiting at the river mouth. Jet-boating is also popular in the river, and holiday homes at the river mouth are well-used by locals and visitors.

The river is famous for its sports fishing, particularly for salmon and trout

Biodiversity in the Hakatere/Ashburton

The river catchment supports more than a dozen native fish including the threatened Canterbury mudfish, and vulnerable invertebrate species such as the koura. Almost 50 native bird species live in the catchment, including the endangered wrybill, and black-billed gull, Tarapuka, which nest near the main road bridge.

Clockwise from top left: Black-fronted tern. Black-billed gull chick, Canterbury mudfish and whitebait.

It is also vital to the local economy. In recent years the district has morphed from a sheep and grain growing district to dairy farming and specialised crops. As a result, there has been significant economic growth in the area, with agriculture creating more new jobs than any other industry.

The impact of land-use change

The partially glacier-fed Hakatere/Ashburton River flows through intensively farmed alluvial plains, past the Ashburton township, and towards the scenic river mouth.

In the last decade, across Canterbury, more water has been abstracted for irrigation, including from the Hakatere/Ashburton River and its connected ground and surface water sources. Today, the river is one of the most allocated in the country. This abstraction has altered the character of the river and reduced the quantity and quality of water in some parts.

Sufficient flow of water is needed to support ecosystems, ensure sediment flushing, to keep river mouths open and maintain the braided river character. Parts of the Ashburton zone have exceeded or are close to reaching the limits of sustainable water use.

Advocating for restoration of the river

In late 2017 local people joined the Ashburton Water Zone Committee to plant hundreds of native trees and share ideas on how to enhance recreation and amenity values along the river.

Across the local community, people passionate about the river and the ecology it supports have been actively involved in ensuring others understand how precious the Hakatere/Ashburton River is, and in reinstating water flow levels to support its biodiversity.

Edith Smith’s interest and concern for the river has developed over the past 30 years, fuelled by her involvement with Forest and Bird.

When she walks the upper reaches of the Hakatere/Ashburton River today as part of an annual river survey, she sees the river as it might have been before settlers arrived.

"It's calm and quiet here and you can hear the bird sounds and spot the native species. It just reminds you how significant the river is naturally and how fortunate we are to have it flowing through town. It's there for people to enjoy."

Edith’s surveying work also gives her an opportunity to check the condition of the river for weed proliferation, low flows, predators and human impacts. This knowledge is invaluable when advocating for the river.

“I'm often talking to children and schools about braided river birds, and there's signs pointing them out to people on the bridge. People are always asking how the braided river bird colonies are going because they're so visible."

Edith was involved in the development of the original Ashburton River Management Plan back in the 1990s but was disappointed it didn't turn out the way she hoped.

"It was a pretty harrowing experience and we're living with the consequences of that now. The plan wasn't about looking after the river, it was about allocating water. There's certainly a farming factor to that and there's a lot of pressure to focus on that. It's the thought that without farming, we [Ashburton] wouldn't be here."

Edith, in her role with Forest and Bird, then became a member of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy steering group. The group initially identified the environment as a priority and she felt hopeful for the future of the river. However, she feels those priorities were again downgraded. Today, she is concerned that reinstating river flows at acceptable levels to support the biodiversity and make the river “swimmable,” will be difficult to achieve.

Edith Smith

As Chairwoman of the local Forest and Bird branch committee, Edith has recently again raised concerns at the time it is taking to increase the flow in the Hakatere/Ashburton River.

“I’m relieved to see more Environment Canterbury councillors now have a greater interest in environmental matters. This has included a definite willingness to listen to the concerns about the environment and biodiversity loss,” she says.
“I want to be optimistic that the tide is turning for the wellbeing of the Hakatere/Ashburton River, but I believe that abstraction from the river needs to be curtailed for there to be any meaningful improvement.”

Balancing different community interests

One of the key groups tasked with restoring the river is the Ashburton Water Zone Committee. As one of ten similar committees established under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, its elected members are tasked with working with the community to deliver sustainable benefits from the region’s fresh water.

In 2011 the Zone Committee developed recommendations for the river which were reflected in their Zone Implementation Programme (ZIP). The ZIP informs Council water planning decisions including the Ashburton Consents Review process.

Bill Thomas

Ashburton Water Zone Committee Chair Bill Thomas says that the health of the Hakatere/Ashburton River is one of the committee’s top priorities, and that was reflected in the Zone Implementation Programme (ZIP). The ZIP informs Council water planning decisions including the Ashburton Consents Review process.

The Zone Committee recognised the importance of the Hakatere/Ashburton River in the Zone Implementation Programme (ZIP) which strives to improve and protect the river’s natural character and mauri.

“It’s scenic and beautiful – everyone who drives into Ashburton from the south goes over the bridge and sees this lovely river, so it’s important to us this river is there for the next generation and the ones to come.”

Included in the ZIP priorities is that “the natural flow regime of the Hakatere/Ashburton River is restored and enhanced,” and “sufficient and secure river flows and high-quality water is available for recreation, mahinga kai, farming, and in-stream habitat and species.”

Bill says that decisions were made on the Hakatere/Ashburton River 20 or 30 years ago, which yielded the outcomes we have today. But improving the state of the river will take time.

“We’ve got to try to counterbalance what’s gone on in the river to try to get it back to what it was. It's probably taken 50 or 60 years to get to where we’re at, and yet we want to try to improve it in 10 years. That’s just not going to happen, so we’ve got to have a bit of patience to get it.”

Bill says that setting minimum flow levels will make a difference to the river ecosystem’s health, and that’s something that all parties are striving for.

“However, under consent review, one side of the equation is getting hit pretty hard to make it work for the other side.”
“It’s a very sensitive issue because you have a farming fraternity who have lived by the river for generations and developed their business around that river. You have groups that really enjoy the environment – walking and fishing in it. Now both those groups have to coexist.”

Seeking a return to the ecology of the past

Former Ashburton Water Zone Committee member and Fish and Game Councillor Matthew Hall also believes that the river needs to have new minimum flow levels set if it is to restore and enhance its biodiversity.

Matthew has fished at the river since the 1940s, particularly enjoying the times he would fish all night and sleep alongside the river. He says this gave him an insight into its nocturnal side.

Fish and Game Councillor Matthew Hall believes new minimum flow levels need to be set to restore and enhance the river’s biodiversity values.
“A river is more alive at night than it is during the day and you can find secretive species like eels and some really small fish you don’t see at other times. At night they are all out, moving up the rapids and feeding and the birds are often feeding at night too.”

Matthew recalls fishing for salmon from the 1950s to 1970s when they were abundant, often bagging two or more a day. Nowadays he says he’d be lucky to catch two a year.

He believes too much water is taken for irrigation, something that started decades ago when consents were issued too freely.

Matthew Hall

“The greatest damage was done to the Ashburton River in the early 1980s. It was dreadful. The in-thing, all up and down the river and all around was to apply for a water right. We just had a cycle where it was dry for years on end and there was no river mouth. Since then the river has declined even further.
“It’s taken a long time to get to where we are now. Back then, I remember conversations with farmer that went along the lines, very seriously, of the answer to irrigation problems being ‘We’ll take the rivers and you can have the lakes.’ That was the attitude, that’s just the way they were,” he says.
“I’d like to think we are now past that sort of patch protection to now saying look, as a community, let's see if we can work together and come to a solution here to give greater security going forward.”

Matthew believes the minimum flow originally set for the river was too low, meaning that species like salmon and trout died off because they couldn’t access the river to spawn.

The river as a source of livelihood

Chris is a member of the Ashburton Water Users Group, a group made up of the largest water abstractors in Ashburton.

After water allocation issues arose during the 2001 drought, the group was formed to ensure the Hakatere/Ashburton River provides some reliable water to consent holders while the river is above its minimum flow.

Chris Allen

“In 2001, the river was struggling and when water became available we would all take it. We were acting like a bunch of individuals back then and the river flow fluctuated a lot and was on restrictions for longer than if we had worked together better,” he said.

The Ashburton District Council, irrigation schemes and other farmers now share their water use data through the Water Users Group, working together to better manage the river as it approaches the minimum flow limit. Environment Canterbury provides a page of data including rainfall and river flows in tributaries, which helps build a better picture of the catchment.

“We’re more transparent with each other now, and we make reductions to manage the river better when it’s above the minimum flow. We know more about the river, how it responds to abstractions and how it recovers. We look at the hydrology, rain data, and at what’s going on in the catchment,” Chris says.
“When the river is near its minimum flow, it’s now about ‘How do we all get a bit of it?’, instead of only one or two users getting their cut of the resource. With real-time telemetered information available, along with on-farm storage, farmers can now manage their water use to match the state of the river.”

Water quality in the Hakatere/Ashburton River has also been a concern for many in the wider community, and Chris, who is also a spokesperson for Federated Farmers, notes that both farmers and industry in Ashburton have improved their practices.

“It’s important to acknowledge there has been a lot of work from all sectors of the Ashburton community to improve the river.
“The Ashburton District Council no longer has human effluent output going through the river and industries such as wool scouring have moved away. Likewise, farmers are using spray and precision irrigation, and effluent storage has improved.”

Despite the improvements in water allocation over recent years, higher minimum flow levels are required to achieve the outcomes sought by the community.

Making necessary changes to current water take consents

Members of the Ashburton Water Zone Committee attended a field trip to a farm near Mt Somers in 2017 to look at the work farmers are doing to improve their environment

To help to achieve the community’s vision for the river, Environment Canterbury is reviewing around 90 water take consents in the Hakatere/Ashburton River catchment beginning in mid-2019.

The Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan (LWRP) includes a sub-regional section for the Ashburton Water Zone (Section 13) which sets minimum flow limits for the Hakatere/Ashburton River catchment.

These minimum flows don’t automatically apply to resource consents. The limits can only be applied when a resource consent expires, when a new consent is sought, or through a consent review.

Andrew Parrish, Environment Canterbury’s Regional Planning Manager, says the river is precious to the local community and that action, in the form of a consent review, needs to be taken now.

“We know this will have an impact. At the moment, we’re talking to farmers about it and helping them through the process to ensure they have all the support and information they need to plan for when the higher minimum flows are introduced.”

“Around 90 consents to take water from the Hakatere /Ashburton River are currently active. We know from the work the Ashburton Water Zone Committee has done with the community, that protecting and enhancing these values is a priority. If we wait for the consents to expire, then it would be another 20 years until all the consents are aligned with the minimum flows expected under the active Land and Water Regional Plan – minimum flows created in consultation with the community,” he says.

Currently, many consents for water takes from the river do not comply with the rules in the Plan and technical modelling shows environmental benefits will only occur if minimum flows are applied to all consents that take water from it.

“We need the consents to change to achieve these outcomes. There are considerable environmental benefits that will be gained from implementing the LWRP minimum flows sooner,” says Andrew.
Water plays a pivotal role in driving economic growth in Ashburton and around 90 consent holders take water from the Hakatere/Ashburton River.

Public meetings, held with the Ashburton Water Zone Committee in July 2019, were well attended. The meetings discussed why the river is of value to the community, how the consent review will help improve the health of the river, and what impact this might have on water users.

Members of the Ashburton Water Zone Committee visit a local farm to learn about some of the good work being done to protect local biodiversity values.

Notices of review have been issued to consent holders affected and they have time to consider the proposed new conditions and propose alternatives. Following completion of the Consent Review, resource consents will be updated with the new minimum flow which will apply from 1 July 2023.

“However, this does mean that from 2023, affected consent holders will be required to stop taking water when the river falls to the minimum flow level. For many farmers, this means they will be restricted from taking water more frequently and for longer periods.

It’s clear that the Hakatere/Ashburton River stirs depth of feeling across the Ashburton community, and that the time for change is now. : The river has passionate advocates, coming from a wide range of perspectives. Perspectives which are closer today than they have ever been thanks to the collaborative process and the bringing together and sharing of previously diverse views. Greatly improving the water flow levels in the river will go a long way towards supporting the outcomes sought by all those who live and work with this unique braided river.

Protecting the Hakatere/Ashburton River from the mountains to the sea (Ki uta, ki tai) is a key priority of the Ashburton Water Zone Committee.